JUNEAU — Anti-abortion advocates say that House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, has sidelined one of their priority bills in the Alaska Legislature by referring it to a committee chaired by an opponent of the legislation, Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer.
"Everyone knows that Paul Seaton is the most liberal Republican in the Legislature," Christopher Kurka, Alaska Right to Life's executive director, said in a phone interview. "The only reason the speaker would be doing this is to kill the bill."
Kurka was referring to Senate Bill 89, sponsored by Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla. The measure would bar "abortion services providers" from teaching sex education in schools — a provision that would apply solely to Planned Parenthood, the organization says.
It also would require schools to get written permission from parents before teaching any sex ed to students.
The bill passed the Senate in a 12-7 vote last month. When it arrived in the House on March 4, Chenault referred it to two committees: education and judiciary.
The education committee is chaired by Wasilla Rep. Wes Keller, a socially conservative Republican. The judiciary committee is chaired by GOP Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, who appeared last year at an anti-abortion rally in Juneau but who also represents a competitive Anchorage district.
Two weeks later — before any House hearings had been held on the bill — Chenault withdrew the referral to LeDoux's committee and instead referred it to Seaton's, the House Health and Social Services Committee.
The move, first reported by Alaska Commons, has drawn skepticism from anti-abortion lawmakers. Rep. Lora Reinbold, an Eagle River Republican who was booted out of the Republican-led majority caucus last year, said in an interview that it was an "anomaly" and that Chenault's motive "needs to be investigated."
And this week, Kurka sent out an alert to supporters with the subject line "House GOP leadership conspires to kill pro-life bill."
Sending the bill to Seaton's committee, Kurka said, was a dodge.
"We feel like Republican leadership in the House wants their constituents to think they're pro-life, but they don't want to take any real action," Kurka said. "Behind the scenes, they were working to make sure the bill didn't come up for air."
In brief interviews Wednesday, both Chenault and House Majority Leader Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, rejected Kurka's charge.
"The bill went to a committee because it has jurisdiction, and that's about all I'm going to say," Chenault said. He added, as he walked away: "I am pro-life, by the way."
Millett said committee referrals aren't one of her powers. She added that she supports a House version of SB 89 sponsored by Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla.
"I don't need to prove my pro-lifeness," she said.
SB 89 passed the House Education Committee last week and is now in front of Seaton's committee. Seaton is also a member of the education committee and said in last week's hearing that the measure would result in less sex ed in schools and more sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies.
"This is, strictly from an educational standpoint, a usurpation of local control, and I'm not in support of passing the bill," he told the committee.
Dunleavy said he'd requested a hearing and acknowledged that there were "rumors" about his bill's impending demise.
"I would hope that it would get a fair hearing," he said in an interview. "I have confidence that Rep. Seaton is a fair man."
In a brief interview, Seaton said he'd schedule a hearing on SB 89 next week, but he didn't say whether he thought the bill would progress beyond his committee. Asked about Alaska Right to Life's objections, he responded: "People do what they do."
The House's reticence to push a bill to curtail an abortion rights group could be because of the risks presented by the upcoming elections, where members may face primary challenges from conservatives who oppose the revenue-generating measures expected to be needed to close the state's massive budget deficit, said Ivan Moore, a liberal-leaning pollster and political consultant.
"Maybe they just don't want to make things worse — particularly for the guys in moderate districts — by forcing them to go on record on something like this," Moore said in a phone interview. "I think they're particularly cautious this year."